Saudis drop big bucks for Washington influence

Saudi Arabia the most active OPEC member on K Street

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Saudi Arabia has spent more of its petroleum dollars lobbying the U.S. government than any of the other 10 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, a total of $6.6 million since mid-2003.

All told, the Saudi government and companies within the kingdom have hired 11 lobby shops and public relations firms to plead their case before official Washington and the American public, the Center for Public Integrity has found.

Business spiked on K Street soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Saudis have spent more than $20 million on lobbying and public relations efforts in the United States since the terrorist attacks, according to foreign lobbying disclosure filings with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia.

Qorvis Communications Inc. has benefited the most from the Saudis' political and PR largesse, taking in $4.5 million during October 2003 through March 2004. Through Qorvis, several firms have been subcontracted to conduct focus groups, produce print, radio, and television ads, and meet with Washington power players.

An Alexandria, Va., firm, Sandler-Innocenzi, handled the radio image campaign for the Saudis. In late 2003, the company orchestrated a three-week blitz in 16 markets across the country touting the kingdom and its people. The total cost was nearly $1 million.

As one of Qorvis' strategic partners, Patton Boggs, one of Washington's largest law and lobbying shops, performs a mountain of lobbying work for the Saudis. For example, Patton Boggs lobbyists have met with congressional staffers on behalf of Saudi interests 62 times in the first half of 2004 alone.

Qorvis itself has created a Web site, www.aboutsaudiarabia.net, to answer queries for registered users about the kingdom. Tossing out rhetorical questions like "Did you know that Saudi Arabia revoked Osama bin Laden's citizenship in 1994?" the site promotes the kingdom as a U.S. ally in the war on terror.

In August 2004, Qorvis announced another nationwide radio campaign to highlight its interpretation of the 9/11 Commission's findings, specifically that the Saudi government was not implicated in the terrorist attacks.

"Our polling indicates there is a major shift. Allegations by our major critics have been proven false," said Nail Al-Jubeir, the director of information and congressional relations at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington. "The 9/11 Commission Report has given us a clean bill of health."

Yet the former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., has gone public with allegations of the Saudis' involvement in 9/11 in his new book, Intelligence Matters. Graham has taken to the airwaves, citing a Saudi government agent helping two of the hijackers in San Diego, Calif., and White House pressure to gut investigations.

"We urge Sen. Graham to read the 9/11 Commission book, which based on his comments he probably has not," said Al-Jubeir. In addition, the kingdom's Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, rebutted all of Graham's charges in a press release from the Saudi Embassy.

Qorvis lobbyists arranged for Saudi officials to take their message straight to the press. Bandar and others have appeared on television dozens of times since October 2003. Saudi representatives also met personally with the editorial boards of seven major newspapers, including The New York Times and USA Today.

"I do think there are people in the media who are chasing headlines instead of facts," said Al-Jubeir, the embassy official.

One of the Saudis' more unusual ventures involves the creation of the Women's Project for Saudi Arabia. Working with a company called the Barnett Group, Qorvis is paying the consultants more than $81,000 to send delegations of high-level American businesswomen to visit Saudi Arabia, as well as organize a future series of women's programs in the kingdom. In turn, Saudi women might travel to the United States.

Judith Barnett, president of the Barnett Group, is a Georgetown University law professor and former deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration. She was primarily responsible for trade in Africa and the Middle East, organizing summits throughout the region while at Commerce.

Barnett appears to have been an advocate of Saudi Arabia before she began to officially lobby for the kingdom's interests. Just a month before she signed her contract with Qorvis, Barnett wrote a column titled "A Mind-Bending Venture Into Saudi Gender Politics," a 1,500-word piece on her experiences at the Jeddah Economic Forum. The article was published in The Washington Post and The Vancouver Sun.

"Qorvis sought me out after the article to try to take this perspective and create ties," said Barnett. "It is not just about creating a network of businesswomen, but real business opportunities."

Women in Saudi Arabia are markedly under-represented. Prohibited from participating in public life and victimized by domestic violence, females in the kingdom petitioned their government for more representation this year, according to Amnesty International's annual report.

Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is often criticized for its lack of rights for women, Barnett says she was impressed by the Saudi businesswomen she met at the forum in January 2004.

"The women I met with were extremely progressive and very advanced in medicine and business in particular. It was really wonderful for me to see that there was a lot of strong leadership there that was female."

Saudi Arabia is still not viewed in the best of light here in the United States. In addition to a widely seen documentary, several books critical of the kingdom have raised uneasy questions about both its connection to the Bush administration and its role in combating terrorism. The kingdom's representatives say they are committed to turning that image around, however.

"For several years, we were maligned and attacked by several groups," said Al-Jubeir. "This is an uphill battle."

The image struggle continues for the kingdom. For the first time under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the State Department last week declared Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" for denying religious freedom "to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam." The Saudi Embassy has declined media requests for comment on the State Department's report.

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